24 May 2020

The decision by Grant Shapps (Secretary of State for Transport) to approve the West Midlands Interchange planning application, will destroy the rural environment of the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal between Gailey and Four Ashes, and damage its setting between Four Ashes and Calf Heath. The Planning Inspectorate Report and Secretary of State Decision Letter was published on 4 May.

This Strategic Rail Freight Interchange is in fact an enormous road-served warehouse development on the scale of Daventry, with 14 huge warehouses of which only two will be directly served by rail, should the construction of the rail terminal proceed. The site will surround the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal and its Conservation Area and change its setting from countryside and woodland to baffle mounds and the upper parts of large ‘tin shed’ warehouses. Its present tranquillity will be replaced by constant traffic noise from 24 hour operations. The proximity of warehouses to Gailey Reservoir will also cause wind turbulence that threatens the viability of its sailing club.

As a result of IWA’s early engagement with the developers, and subsequent agreements with Canal & River Trust, there will be some benefit in the removal of 2 unsightly redundant pipe bridges and a concrete bridge at Four Ashes, resurfacing the towpath through the site, and towpath access to a canalside park area at Croft Lane. However, these are but little compensation for the lasting damage this development will do to the heritage, amenity and tourism value of the canal.

As a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project this application was decided outside the normal local authority planning system. IWA submitted a comprehensive summary of our objections to the Development Consent Order application at the earliest stage of its examination, and Canal & River Trust were engaged throughout in trying to mitigate its impacts. We had support from the main local protest group which provided much detailed expert evidence against the scheme. It seemed from questions raised during the proceedings that the Inspector understood how it would impact the canal, so it was a shock how little weight is given to that in the subsequent report and recommendations.

Although the impact on canal users and on the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal Conservation Area was only one of the determining factors, the absence of any proven need for this speculative development, the inappropriate location away from the Black Country market it will serve, the excessive scale of the proposals, the increased traffic it will cause on already congested roads, and other matters, it is nevertheless shocking that the Inspector can dismiss the heritage value of the Canal Conservation Area as “low” and the impacts as “less than substantial”.

Particularly concerning is the false reasoning in the Inspector’s report about heritage issues:

  • because the Inspector personally considers the boatyard at Gailey Wharf to be “unkempt” with “poor quality” buildings, this “offsets” the heritage value of the unique Listed Round House and Cottage; yet the visible warehouses and traffic noise “would not alter the heritage value”
  • that because the site affects “only a small part of the 74km long, linear Canal Conservation Area” the impact on its significance as a whole is “negligible”
  • that because this section of the Conservation Area has already been partly damaged by industrial development that implicitly justifies further development
  • that effects on the Conservation Area would be outweighed by “public benefits” (although these “benefits” are not outlined)

The Secretary of State has then cited the Inspector’s comments about the boatyard, previous industrial development and public benefits as justification for concluding that the effects on heritage are “not significant”.

The Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal is a jewel in the crown of our canal system. It is one of the first narrow canals and the only one completed in James Brindley’s lifetime, and has remained remarkably unchanged for 250 years with a wealth of historic structures and largely rural surroundings. The former tar distillery at Four Ashes, which became the chemical works, was the only real blot on its landscape until recent years when this section and parts in Wolverhampton have been invaded by large, featureless warehouse buildings. But even around Four Ashes the canal itself and its original accommodation bridges remain remarkably attractive, and the Roundhouse at Gailey along with the cottage, lock and wharf is a unique heritage asset that should be nationally treasured.